Those Nordic Braces
The term “Nordic Braces”, as used herein, pertains to bitstocks originating in the European countries often referred to by historians as “The Nordic Nations.” Only braces produced prior to the employment of mass production techniques are discussed.
The landmass of the Nordic Nations is huge, extending over 1200 miles from North to South, from inside the Artic Circle to the base of the Jutland Peninsula. It not only includes the countries of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark but also Northern Germany, Poland, Russia and Lapland: all of the land mass boarding on the Baltic Sea, North Sea, Gulf of Bothnia, eastern North Atlantic, and the Gulf of Finland. Countries that are dominated by water and were controlled or ruled by the Vikings for centuries.
The establishment of detailed bitstock characteristics relating to a specific Nordic country, i.e. Sweden, Norway, etc., is difficult. For thousands of years, the inhabitants of the Nordic Nations have had the ability to travel by water over long distances from one area to another. In addition, after conquest of an area, the Vikings would settle it and establish active commerce between it and their homeland. As a result, tool designs and construction techniques characteristic of one region are often found employed on tools originating in other areas.
The following comments pertaining to the characteristics of Nordic Braces are based on information I’ve been able to obtain since becoming actively involved in the research and collection of Nordic Tools in 1980.
General Characteristics of Nordic Metal Braces
A metal Nordic brace is seldom if ever marked with a maker’s name or date. They usually have an arm or crank that slants from the head to the handle, or wrist, while the arm from the handle to the chuck runs straight between them forming a right angle with both. With very few exceptions, they are hand forged and, although they may share several similar characteristics of design, none are exactly alike. Their heads, usually made of wood, are held in place by the metal arm that passes through the head and a washer and is then peened over.
In general, their chucks are rectangular or square in shape and forged as an integral part of the frame. Chucks may be marked in various ways, but, to date, very little is known as to the meaning of the marks. The narrow rectangular opening of the chuck is designed to hold a flat tanged bit. Braces originating in a Nordic country will usually employ the use of flat tanged bits. The bit passes completely through the chuck and is held in place by some type of spring type device mounted on the arm between the chuck and the handle. In some cases the bit is held in place by means of a thumbscrew that is threaded into the chuck. Some of the more modern Nordic-type braces have a chuck designed to hold either a flat tanged bit or a square tanged bit.
Swedish Metal Braces
Example of a beautiful Nordic-type metal brace from Sweden. The cardboard tag, tied to the brace with old store string, has the following note on it: “Brace and bit from Mr. Art Clifford–April 1902. Mr. Clifford got this from Mr. Larson many years ago as it was made in Sweden.” The note was written by F. W. Shilling owner of the Shilling Museum which was located in Northfield, MN. (Author’s Collection)
The wooden head, of Nordic metal braces of Swedish origin, is usually made in two parts and is completely out of proportion to the other delicate and detailed parts of the brace. The lower section of the two-part head is permanently fixed to the arm of the brace and acts as a thrust block that the upper section of the head can rotate against. Wood against wood. The oversize head is needed in order to provide a large bearing surface.
Three typical Swedish metal braces. Note, that they all have a two part head and that they are all slightly different. (Author’s collection)
The two separate parts of the head are clearly visible in this picture of a metal Swedish brace. Note the typical Nordic shape of the brace. (Author’s collection)
Two braces of a more modern design that is quite often found. These were made in Eskilstuna, Sweden. Their chucks hold a square tanged bit that is held in place by means of a spring-type device attached to the arm. Heads are one piece and rotate on a metal thrust block forged as part of the arm — similar to those usually found on metal braces of Norwegian design.
Sketch of chuck and bit holding mechanism on braces shown in Figure 3a.
A number of Swedish-type Nordic braces have been found with a center punch mark on the chuck. Flat tanged bits, found with Swedish braces that have this mark, have a similar punch mark on their tang. Nordic braces have been found with a large X mark on the chuck, the significance of which is not presently known.
This sketch shows the spring-type arrangement used to hold the bit in the chuck of the metal Swedish brace shown in Figure 1. Note the location of the punch mark on the chuck. The significance of the punch mark is not known.
Norwegian Metal Braces
This hand forged Norwegian metal brace has a brass or bronze head and handle. Note the enlarged portion of the arm that serves as a thrust block for the single piece head to rotate on. (Author’s collection.)
The wooden or metal heads on metal Nordic braces of Norwegian origin are usually designed as a single-piece. There is either a leather or metal washer fastened to the bottom of the head that rotates on an enlarged washer shape that is forged as part of the arm. The one-piece head and other details of the brace are usually delicate and fine.
This documented Norwegian metal brace has the typical Nordic brace shape. It belonged to Peter Christenson Kjornes who brought it with him when he immigrated to Gilchrist County, Minnesota in 1870. Peter died Decmber 27, 1923 at the age of 77. Note that the arm is enlarged at the base of the head to provide the surface for a single-piece head to rotate against. However in this case the head is made in two parts similar to those found on Swedish braces. It is possible that the original head may have been broken and the two-piece head added at a later date. (Vesterheim-Norwegian-American Museum collection, Decorah, Iowa.)
This Norwegian metal brace has many of the characteristics and details of the brace shown in Figure 5 except that the workmanship on the frame does not seem to be of the same quality and rather than having a spring-type device to hold the bit, a thumb screw is used. (Vesterheim Museum collection)
This metal Nordic brace was brought to the U.S. from Norway in 1867. It was purchased at an estate auction in Kimball, MN in 1990. Unfortunately, the head was broken off and could not be found. Details of the unusual chuck are shown in Figure 9. (Author’s collection)
The chuck of metal braces of Norwegian design is also forged as an integral part of the frame and has a narrow rectangular opening to receive a flat tanged bit. With very few exceptions, a spring-type device is mounted on the arm to retain the bit which passes through the opening in the chuck.
Sketch of brace in Figure 8 showing the unique method of bit retention. Note the integral chuck.
Finish Metal Braces
Metal braces from the Finish area usually incorporate several of the general design characteristics found in most Nordic braces: i.e., square or rectangular shaped chucks (Figure 10) that are forged as an integral part of the frame, narrow rectangular opening in the chucks that will take a flat tanged bit, etc. However, their frames are usually somewhat cruder and simpler in design (Figure 12) and the heads and the mechanics for retaining bits in the chucks are greatly influenced by designs used in other parts of the Nordic area. In general the braces from the Finish area do not seem to have the high level of workmanship often found in braces from Norway or Sweden.
This Finish brace has a single piece delicately turned head that rotates on an enlarged metal thrust block. The arm, from the head to the handle, is curved in the usual Nordic manner while the curved arm from the handle to the chuck departs from the typical Nordic style. The hand forged, 10″ long, flat tanged bit is held in the chuck by a simple thumb screw. (Author’s collection)
Sketch showing details of chuck and bit arrangement for brace shown in Figure 10.
This hand forged Finish brace has a delicately detailed turned bone head and a finely tooled and detailed bit. Note the simple shape of the frame. (Author’s collection)
It is believed that this Finish brace has a replacement head. The chuck is forged as part of the arm. Note the attached lever used to retain the flat tanged bit. Of particular interest is the X mark on the chuck.
Detail of chuck on brace shown in Figure 13. The X mark on the chuck has been found on a number of Nordic braces. The significance of the mark is not known.
Nordic Wooden Braces
Wooden braces were produced and used throughout the Nordic area. This appears to have been especially true in the Netherlands. Details of design do not seem to pertain to any special area. The following examples are shown to indicate some of their characteristics.
This brace was obtained from an individual who purchased it from a farmer in Denmark. The head rotates against the large wooden arm. The pad screws into a chuck that is part of the arm and holds a flat tanged bit. Note the general shape of the brace. (Author’s collection)
Pad from brace shown in Figure 15. The threads on the pad are turned at three to the inch. The use of such widely spaced threads, 3 or 3-1/2 per inch, seems to be common on many of the wooden braces found in the Nordic countries. (Author’s collection)
This wooden Swedish brace was obtained from an antique dealer who purchased it in Stockholm in 1986. Note the shape of the frame and how it mirrors those found on Nordic metal braces. (Chester Djonne collection)
Detail of the head on brace shown in Figure 17. Note how the head rotates against the arm. Wood on wood. (Chester Djonne collection)
Detail of the pad for the brace shown in Figure 17. It holds a flat tanged spoon bit. Note wide spacing of the threads. (Chester Djonne collection)
The Nordic Breast Auger
The famous 11th. Century “Bayeux Tapestry” depicts this type of auger being used to bore holes in planks – strakes – during construction of Viking ships for the invasion of England by William the Conqueror.
This typical Nordic Breast Auger is one of three obtained in Murmansk in 1985 by Les Oberman of Cold Spring, MN. The huge hand forged 1-1/2″ diameter center bit has a flat tang that fits into a simple slot in the wooden auger. When found, these hand made augers are all slightly different. (Author’s collection)
In summary I want to thank Eric Peterson for his encouragement, review and comment, Jeff Grothaus for his editorial help and Jack Pesci for production of the graphics. Without their help this article could not have been produced.
1 The 230 foot long, 20 inch wide embroidered “Bayeux Tapestry”, which tells the story of the Norman conquest of England, was executed by Matilda, wife of William the Conqueror, and embroidered by her ladies in waiting during the 1070’s. It depicts the historic and bloody battle of October 14, 1066 on Senlac hill near Hasting England between the armies of William the Conqueror (descendant of the Norwegian chieftain Rollo) and the Saxon King Harold Godwinson (descendant of Danish and Swedish Kings). A battle which pitted Viking heir against Viking heir.
Panel 36 shows construction of Viking ships for use in the invasion of England. Of additional interest is the depiction of ship plank production in the traditional Viking manner of centuries prior.